The Fatal Exchange – Romans 1:24-32

Newton’s Third Law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Though this law describes what happens in the physical universe in terms of forces and so on, there is a sense in which this is equally valid in the moral universe.  Every ethically charged choice we make has consequences.  You push back against the moral structure of the universe that God made and it is going to push back in one way or another.

The apostle is illustrating that principle in the verses of our text.  His basic argument is this: when you reject the truth about God and replace it with a lie, when you replace God with something else, then you can be sure that God’s holy and just wrath will come against you.  You push against God, and he is going to push back.  However, the apostle is also showing us that exchanging God for some sort of idolatry is also the basic sin.  It is the main and first reason why God’s wrath has come against men and women.

We noted last time that one of the ways in which God’s wrath is shown is in the very sin we commit.  Though there will be a final, climatic event in which God’s wrath will be poured out on all who have rejected him, yet there is even today a sense in which God’s wrath is presently being revealed.  And that is in the sins that leak out of a heart that has first rejected the truth about God.  We are first ungodly before we are unrighteous (cf. ver. 18), but that unrighteousness is part of the consequence of being ungodly.  One follows the other and is a judgment in itself.

I want you to notice the structure of our text and see how Paul himself is explaining this.  In verses 23 to the end of the chapter, you have a three-fold exchange followed by a three-fold giving up.  First, note the exchange: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (22-23).  “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (25).  In these two instances, men exchange the glory and truth of God for something else.  Then follows this exchange: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.  For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.  And the men likewise …” (26).  

Now let’s look at the three-fold giving up: In response to the exchange of verses 23, Paul writes, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (24).  In response to the exchange of verse 25, Paul writes, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (26).  And then again in verse 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God [another way of saying they exchanged God for something else], God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” 

So you see what the apostle is doing here.  God gives people up to sin because they have first given him up.  God allows them to descend into moral anarchy because they have first refused to acknowledge his rule over their lives.  When we asked last time, “What is the problem with the world?” this is the most fundamental answer to that question.  The world is wrong because first and foremost men have rejected God.  That is extremely important to see.  What people need more than anything else, is to get right with God.  This is more important than the addiction to whatever lust or problem they currently are struggling with, because every lust and problem we have stems from this more basic problem of rejecting God.  You won’t adequately deal with the consequences unless you deal the fundamental reason for those consequences.

In our last message, we asked a what question.  In this message, I want to ask, why?  In brief we are asking two questions: why is it that exchanging the truth about God for something else is so bad, and then secondly, why does it lead to these other things the apostle mentions in our text?  The apostle specifically mentions lesbian and male homosexual behavior in verses 26-27.  In particular, why are those patterns of behavior mentioned as a consequence of rejecting God?  

Why exchanging God for something else is the fundamental sin

The key verse here is verse 25: “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.”  This verse is key because it is the reason for the “giving up” mentioned in both verses 24 and 26.  It therefore serves as the basic explanation for why all this is happening. 

To understand what is going on here, we need to understand what Paul means by “the truth about God” which is exchanged for a lie.  There are at least two things that are understood in this truth about God.  First, Paul is referring to the truth that God exists and that he is the Creator of all things (including you!).  “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse” (20).  You see it here also in verse 25, where God is described as “the Creator.”  Thus, God is to be understood as not part of the universe, but as distinct from it; not depending on the universe, but the universe depending upon him.  He alone is “immortal” (23), having no beginning, being alone uncreated.  

This reality has been rejected.  But remember, this does not mean that they became atheists; they just replaced the God who is transcendent above all things with a more manageable god.  You see this even today when people talk about God.  For example, Nikita Khrushchev is supposed to have once claimed as evidence for atheism that man had gone into space and found no god there.  C. S. Lewis’ reply to that is to the point: that going into space to find God is like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle to find Shakespeare.  It’s the fundamental mistake of thinking that God is part and parcel of the universe that he made.  He is not part of the furniture.  He is not hiding behind the moon.  And the reason is because, like Shakespeare to his story, God is the Creator and not one of his creatures.

You also hear this when, in response to the Biblical portrayal of God, people say things like, “My God wouldn’t be like that!”  When we say, “My God wouldn’t…” what are we saying?  Aren’t we saying that we have this idea of what God should be like and he should conform to that?  Isn’t that doing what Paul is describing here?  Aren’t we creating God in our own image, bringing him down to our size, turning the Creator into one of his creatures? 

The second thing about God that is rejected is not only his existence and role as Creator, but also his role as Lawgiver.  One of the things the apostle says here is that people know that when they do wrong, they are actually doing wrong.  You see this in verse 32: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”  They know they are doing wrong, and yet they not only do these things themselves, they encourage others to join them in the practice of wickedness.  They know God’s law in some sense, and yet they still reject it.

From these two things, we see that the fundamental truth that is traded away for a lie is the truth that God is our Creator and Lawgiver, that we depend on him, and that we are under his sovereign rule.  It comes down to this: our fundamental problem is that we want to assert our own sovereignty over our lives.  We want to be the ones who ultimately call the shots.  We’re okay with a notion of deity, as long as he minds his own business.  We want to define reality.  We want to be gods.  And the only way to do that is to exchange the truth about God for a lie.

So why is this so bad?  In some sense, the word “bad” may not be adequate here.  This is what the prophet Jeremiah had to say about this tendency to replace the true God with something else: “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.  Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13).  So maybe we should ask, why is this so appalling?  Why is this so shocking?  Why is this so evil?  There are at least two reasons.

First of all, because it is a lie.  “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”  When we try to carve out our reality, when we make ourselves the final judges as to what is right or wrong for ourselves, we do not cease to live in the world which God created.  This kind of thinking is like the cartoons when a character like Daffy Duck walks off a cliff and then someone gives him a copy of Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, upon which, having read it he begins to fall.  The thing is that ignorance of the God’s laws (whether the laws that govern the physical universe or the laws that govern the moral universe) doesn’t make them stop working just because we don’t want them to.  

Of course, we still go for the lie, and the reason is because we like the lie better than we like the truth.  This is what Jesus said: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20).  You see this played out on a miniature scale every time we choose something we know isn’t good for us.  You know you shouldn’t eat that thing or indulge in that treat or feed that craving, and yet you do it anyway.  Why?  Because what that thing or treat or craving is telling you is more desirable at that moment than what is actually best for you.  So we do it.  However, the problem with this kind of decision making is that just because something is desirable doesn’t make the undesirable consequences go away.

The same is true with respect to our desire for self-sovereignty.  Just because we don’t want God to rule over us doesn’t make the consequences go away.

However, the problems don’t stop there.  When we live a lie, when we live in self-deception, which is what we are doing when we refuse to acknowledge the reality of God’s ownership of us, we open ourselves to all sorts of wrong thinking.  Wrong thinking is rarely quarantined.  It usually leaks out into every part of life.  And this is such a basic reality that if we go wrong here, we are probably going to go wrong in many, many other ways as well.  One lie leads to another, and another, and another.

And this is the reason why exchanging God for something else is the fundamental sin: it is because it is the first lie we have to believe in order to justify every other sin.  Every sin is an assertion of self-sovereignty, a declaration of independence from God.  But in order to get there, we have to first replace the true God with something or someone who can be managed.  The problem is that such a god simply does not exist.

Second, this is shocking because we when replace God with something or someone else, we have traded something of infinite value for something of immeasurably less value.  They “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (25).  

Sometimes people think that God is being petty by requiring everyone to worship him.  But here’s the problem with that kind of thinking.  Everyone worships something.  You are a worshipper.  There is something or someone (it may be yourself!) that you worship, that holds your affection and attention and ultimately your allegiance and loyalty.  Notice what the apostle says: he doesn’t stop at “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” but goes on to say “and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”  If you don’t worship the Creator, you will end up worshiping the creature. 

The fact of the matter is that you were made to be a worshipper.  It’s part of what it means to be human.  Worship is the appropriate response to beauty and truth and power and majesty and glory.  In the Anglican marriage service, the man is supposed to say upon putting the wedding ring upon the finger of his bride: “With this ring I thee wed: with my body I thee worship.”  Of course a man should worship his wife, because that is the appropriate response of a husband to the loveliness of his wife.

C. S. Lewis struggled with this idea, but he came to realize how absurd it was to think it was wrong for God and the authors of Scripture to call us to worship God.  He writes,

But the most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me.  I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour.  I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.  The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

He concludes by saying,

My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.[1]

Here’s the bottom line: when we worship other things above God or instead of God, we are saying that we do not consider God to be supremely valuable.  But how can that be true?  Everything else that we might delight in is itself a creature – something created by God.  How can the creature be greater than the Creator?  It cannot.  Everything that is beautiful borrows its beauty from God.  All truth and power and goodness ultimately finds its origin in God.  To trade God for his creation is insanity.  It is to forsake the fountain of living waters for cisterns that can hold no water.  

It is the ultimate insult to God.  It not only puts him on the level, but below the level of his creature.  He alone is the fountain of blessedness.  He alone is “blessed forever.”  Everything else will lose its desirability.  Finite things cannot offer lasting enjoyment.  They will run out, expend themselves, of their ability to sate the craving of our souls.  Only God can be the fountain of living waters for us.

Now what does this have to do with this being a fundamental sin?  At the end of the day, all sin is a matter of what or who we choose to worship.  You will either worship God and see him as the supremely valuable one, or you will worship and serve the creature.  And when we value the wrong things we are going to end up doing the wrong things, making the wrong choices, and having the wrong priorities.  We will end up loving what we should hate and hating what we should love.  Valuing the wrong thing tends to warp one’s perspective.  As Thomas Schreiner writes in his commentary on these verses, “To worship corruptible animals and human beings instead of the incorruptible God is to turn the created order upside down.”[2]  And this leads us to our second main point.

Why being given up is tied to our exchanging God for something else

Paul says three times that God gives some people over to certain patterns of behavior as part of his judgment upon them for their rejection of him.  The apostle says that they are given up to “the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (24), to “dishonorable passions” (26), and “to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (28).  

The basic idea is this: the most unnatural thing to do is to replace the Creator with the creature.  Once we do that, we open ourselves up to doing other unnatural things.  And the more we reject the truth about God the more we become susceptible to doing things are contrary to the moral order God has imposed upon his world.  What we do is a mirror what we believe about God.

And yet this is more than just a natural consequence, as in one thing always following another.  For the apostle explicitly says that God gives them up.  This is a judgment.  These sins that Paul mentions, in verses 26-27 and then in verses 29-31, are patterns of behavior that are in themselves a punishment for their fundamental rejection of God.  

Now I have to say something about verses 26-27.  In our day, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain Biblical fidelity in our culture without coming under some kind of attack, and being called a hater and a bigot.  What I mean is that though the Bible is crystal clear that homosexual acts are sinful, and are, in Paul’s words, unnatural (26), yet our culture no longer sees these things as unnatural; indeed, it celebrates this kind of lifestyle.

The Christian response to this must be two-fold.  First of all, we must never give anyone a valid reason to label us as hateful.  As followers of Christ, we are called to love even our enemies.  That means that even if we disagree with a person’s choices (including their choices regarding what Paul is describing here) we must still show love to them.  We must show kindness to all.  Moreover, we should never, ever give anyone the impression that we think we are intrinsically better than they are.  There is no room for self-righteousness in the Christian life.  We should be willing to invite gay people into our lives and love them and seek to bring them to faith in Christ.

But second, neither must we waver from a firm commitment to Biblical standards.  At the end of the day, we must obey God rather than man.  If God says something is sinful, it is neither courageous nor loving to say it isn’t.  These verses clearly affirm that homosexual behavior is sinful and is part of the revelation of God’s wrath against our sinful rejection of him.  Again, to quote Schreiner: “Just as idolatry is a violation and perversion of what God intended, so too homosexual relations are contrary to what God planned when he created man and woman.”[3]

But I also want to point out that these are not the only sins Paul mentions.  He also mentions greed and malice and envy and strife and deceit and gossip and boastfulness.  Who among us is free from these things?  Though some things in the list are certainly worse than others (murder, being an inventor of evil, and being heartless and ruthless), yet the apostle is clear that these are all the result of turning away from the one who made us to see his glory and worship him.  The apostle’s intention here is not to cordon off some part of mankind as being worse than others.  His intention here and up through the middle of chapter three is to show that we are all sinners, under the wrath of God, and in need of salvation.  Paul’s conclusion is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).  That’s not just true of homosexual sinners, it’s true of everyone else, too.  

Which brings us back to verses 16-17.  We need the gospel, which is the revelation of the righteousness of God, because of the revelation of the wrath of God.  The wonderful thing about this gospel of the righteousness of God, is that this is not a righteousness which is aimed to judge us, but a righteousness which is aimed to save us.  And it is also based on another kind of exchange.  Not a sinful exchange, like the one we have made.  This is an exchange of grace.  Though we do not deserve God’s mercy, and we are all worthy of his eternal judgment, yet in the gospel God extends to us his offer of salvation.  It is not based on what you do; it is based on what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for us on the cross.  We deserve God’s wrath, but on the cross, the Lord absorbed the righteous wrath of God for all who will believe on him.  Here is the way Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

[1] This is from his book, Reflections on the Psalms.  You can access it online here:
[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (1998), p. 94.
[3] Ibid, p. 94.


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